Justify emerged as the clear favorite for the May 5 Kentucky Derby with a dominating victory in the Santa Anita Derby as last year's 2-year-old champion Good Magic and the improving Vino Rosso also nailed down spots in the Run for the Roses in weekend action.
Racing from New York to Kentucky to California also put some definition to the Oaks picture. Important sprints were everywhere.
On the international front, Happy Clapper won in Australia, securing a Breeders' Cup berth, but first tries Winx again next weekend. And the local horses lining up for the big Hong Kong Group 1 races earlier this month were in action at Sha Tin.
We'll be at Sha Tin soon, too. But first, this:
The Road to the Roses
The Santa Anita Derby
It's gone well beyond whether Justify is good enough to justify the hype surrounding his rapid ascendency to likely favorite status for the May 5 Kentucky Derby. The question now is more: How good IS this Scat Daddy colt and to what heights can he ascend?
Making just his third career start for trainer Bob Baffert, Justify led virtually all the way in Saturday's $1 million Grade I Santa Anita Derby. He took off a bit on jockey Mike Smith down the backstretch, brushed off a challenge from Bolt d'Oro, once the darling of West Coast fans, and coasted home first by 3 lengths despite drifting out a bit in the final furlong.
Bolt d'Oro held on for second with Core Beliefs 6 1/2 lengths farther back in third. Instilled Regard came all the way from New Orleans to finish fourth. Mike Smith piloted Justify over 9 furlongs in 1:49.72.
"He's got so much room to grow and to even get better, believe it or not," Smith said of Justify. "I think this race is going to put a lot more bottom into him. He handled a mile and an eighth really well and, like I said, what you're seeing right now is just raw talent. If he moves forward off of this race, which he should, then it's even kind of scary to talk about."
After watching Smith struggle to hold Justify on the backstretch, Baffert quipped, "I might want to put a little more bit on him to control him, and I told Mike he better start working out between now and then (the Kentucky Derby) to hold him down."
Justify is owned by a partnership rapidly becoming a force in the sport: China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, WinStar Farm and Starlight Racing.
Bolt d'Oro's trainer, Mick Ruis, said his colt may have the advantage at the Kentucky Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles but didn't fully explain that theory. Justify closed as the 3-1 favorite in this weekend's Kentucky Derby futures pool, followed by Mendelssohn at 5-1. Bolt d'Oro closed at 9-1 odds.
The Blue Grass
Good Magic, the 2017 juvenile champ, returned to the winner's circle in big way after Saturday's $1 million Grade II Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland, restoring the luster that was slightly tarnished with a third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth -- his 3-year-old debut.
With Jose Ortiz in the irons, Good Magic, a Curlin colt, was well placed behind the leaders down the back stretch, moved quickly into contention around the turn and was in command down the lane, winning by 1 1/2 lengths over pacesetting Flameaway. Sporting Chance finished third but was demoted to fourth for bothering Free Drop Billy, who was awarded show money.
Good Magic finished 9 furlongs in 1:50.18 over a track that was rated muddy for the day's first race but quickly upgraded to good, then fast, well before the Blue Grass.
"For only two starts this year, I was hoping to be peaking for the Derby and hopefully we'll advance another step on Derby Day," said winning trainer Chad Brown. "Looks like is a very good crop of horses this year and it's going to be a tough race." Flameaway has finished behind Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso (see below) twice in his career and his trainer, Mark Casse, said, "I think we can hold our head high" heading to Louisville.
The Wood Memorial
Vino Rosso hooked up with the favorite, Enticed, early in the stretch run in Saturday's $1 million Grade II Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, bumped soundly twice with that rival to his inside, then drew off to win by 3 lengths. Enticed held second and his jockey, Junior Alvarado, lost an objection involving the contact. Restoring Hope, shipped in from California by trainer Bob Baffert, paid for his trip with an even run to get show money. Vino Rosso, a Curlin colt, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:49.79. He came to New York after finishing third in the Sam F. Davis and fourth in the Tampa Bay Derby.
"We're feeling like we're seeing a horse that has that talent, and he's doing well, and we felt like that mile and an eighth is something he's looking for," said winning trainer Todd Pletcher. "This is the performance we've been looking for."
Alvarado said he couldn't believe the stewards didn't reverse the order of finish and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said it's on to Churchill Downs for Enticed.
My Miss Lilly stalked the pace in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Gazelle at Aqueduct, joined the leaders widest of three entering the turn and prevailed in a long struggle to the finish. Sara Street showed the way early and missed by only 1/2 length under the wire, a neck in front of Virginia Key. The other three, including the favorite, Midnight Disguise, were well out of the frame. My Miss Lilly, a Tapit filly, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.42 with Joe Bravo at the controls.
"She's a filly we've always been looking forward to getting around two turns," trainer Mark Hennig said of My Miss Lilly. "Her dam's side indicates sprint, but she's all Tapit. She's a big long-legged Tapit, just dying to run two turns. We felt like getting around two turns was going to happen for her at a mile and an eighth." Oaks? "We'll discuss it."
Monomoy Girl was the odds-on favorite in Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Central Bank Ashland Stakes at Keeneland and jockey Florent Geroux rode her with the resulting confidence. Quickly on the lead, the Tapizar filly never looked back and finished first in a hand ride, 5 1/2 lengths ahead of runner up Eskimo Kisses in what the Equibase chart writer called a "stylish effort." It was another 7 1/2 lengths back to Patrona Margarita in third as Monomoy Girl finished the 1 1/16 miles over a fast track in 1:43.74.
"There wasn't really a plan (regarding going for the lead)," Geroux said. "I just wanted to get a good position and let the filly be comfortable. I hustled her a little bit from post one. We had the rail and we had the right of going. We just took it to them and she was the best. She can go very fast."
The Santa Anita Oaks
Midnight Bisou took back toward the rear of a nine-filly field in Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Santa Anita Oaks, rallied three-wide around the stretch turn and dominated in the lane, winning by 3 1/2 lengths as the odds-on favorite. Spectator ran evenly to finish second, another 3 1/2 lengths in front of Thirteen Squared. Midnight Bisou, a Midnight Lute filly, got 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.79 with Mike Smith scoring the Derby-Oaks riding double.
Smith said: "Although she was probably a little farther back than anyone expected, it was almost ... I'm not going to compare it to riding Zenyatta ... but I used to be way back there and I wasn't worried because I knew that she could catch them. She gives me that great turn of foot, and I want to give her something to run at or she'll put the air brakes on."
About riding the winners of both the Derby and the Oaks, Smith added: "I was very fortunate today. I just put the weight on those two. There wasn't a whole lot of riding."
Army Mule shadowed the early speed in Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Carter Handicap at Aqueduct, summoned a burst of speed through the turn to take the lead and drew off easily, winning by 6 1/4 lengths, not fully extended. The favorite, Awesome Slew, came from well back to finish second, 3 1/4 lengths to the good of Great Stuff. Army Mule, a 4-year-old Friesan Fire colt, finished 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:20.94. Joe Bravo rode. "The sky's the limit with him," said winning trainer Todd Pletcher. "He's just a super talented horse and it's a matter of keeping him happy and healthy and pointing him in the right direction. The way he finished today at seven-eighths, a race like the Met Mile would certainly make sense and be on the radar." That's the $1.2 million Grade I on June 9.
Pletcher also saddled National Flag to win Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Bay Shore for 3-year-olds at 7 furlongs over the Aqueduct strip. The Speightstown colt, with Flavien Prat in the irons, was squeezed at the start, lagged behind the leaders and made up all the ground in the stretch to win by 4 lengths over the favorite, Engage. Aveenu Malcainu was third. National Flag, owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and SF Racing, finished in 1:23.16. "At some point down the road we might stretch him out," Pletcher said. "We'll probably look for a one-turn mile next or something like that. We'll play it by ear and see how he comes out of this."
Warrior's Club outfinished the favorite, Limousine Liberal, in the stretch run of Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Commonwealth Stakes at Keeneland, winning by a neck. Awesome Saturday was only a neck farther back in third with a late run from far back in the nine-horse field. Warrior's Club, a 4-year-old Warrior's Reward colt, was dispatched at odds of better than 23-1 and finished the 7 furlongs over a fast track in 1:22.61 under Luis Contreras. He is owned by the 200-member Churchill Downs Racing Club and trained by D. Wayne Lukas. "The name describes him about as well as anything," Lukas said "He's a warrior, I tell you. He's just a wonderful little horse to train. I always kid people that a used car salesman could train him. "He's not hard to train at all. He gives you every effort, every time. And to make 200 people happy is really special."
Filly & Mare Sprint
Finley'sluckycharm scored her first Grade I victory in Saturday's $300,000 Madison Stakes at Keeneland. The 5-year-old Twirling Candy mare pressed the pace, assumed a late lead and dug in gamely to prevail by a nose over Miss Sunset, another nose over third-place Lewis Bay and a head over American Gal, who completed the superfecta. Finley'sluckycharm, with Brian Hernandez Jr. in the irons, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.82. "Unbelievable," said winning trainer Bret Calhoun. "This was a great one for us. She's been very deserving of a Grade 1 and we're so happy to get it here at Keeneland."
Highlighting the difficulty of winning at -- much less handicapping --Keeneland, the first four finishers in the Madison last raced at Fair Grounds, Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park and Saratoga, respectively.
Holiday Disguise raced mid-pack in Friday's $150,000 Distaff Handicap at Aqueduct, circled to the outside of the leaders on the turn and raced five-wide down the stretch to win by 1 length. Sounds Delicious finished second but was set down to fourth, promoting Divine Miss Grey and Torrent to the place and show slots. Holiday Disguise, a 4-year-old Harlan's Holiday filly, toured 7 furlongs in 1:22.98 with Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons.
Swing and Sway swung three-wide into the stretch in Saturday's $150,000 Carousel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, seized the lead and held on gamely to win by 1/2 length over Thoughtless. The favorite and early leader, Vertical Oak, settled for third. Swing and Sway, a four-year-old daughter of Maclean's Music, ran 6 furlongs on a sloppy, sealed track in 1:11.20. Marquee Miss was a late scratch.
Gas Station Sushi was away late, then along in deep stretch to win Sunday's $150,000 Grade III Beaumont Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 1 1/2 lengths. Late-running Kelly's Humor was up for second, 3/4 length ahead of early leader Uppercut. Gas Station Sushi, an Into Mischief miss, got about 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:26.77. "She's a special filly," said winning rider Corey Nakatani. "I think she can do anything and she proved today she can overcome adversity and put in her run."
Analyze It, the odds-on favorite, rallied from mid-field in Friday's $150,000 Grade III Kentucky Utilities Transylvania Stakes for 3-year-olds at Keeneland, quickly took over entering the stretch and kicked away to win by 5 1/4 lengths. Captivating Moon was second, a nose in front of Admiralty Pier. Analyze It, a Point of Entry colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on yielding turf in 1:45.60 for jockey Jose Ortiz.
Fire Away outfinished Projected and even-money favorite Mo Town to win Sunday's $100,000 Danger's Hour at Aqueduct. Chasing three-wide, Fire Away got home first by 1 1/4 lengths, finishing 1 mile on firm turf in 1:35.15. "They didn't want me to rush him early," said winning rider Manny Franco. "We knew there was going to be a lot of pace in front of us so I just sat quiet and when I thought it was time to make a move, I did it."
Filly & Mare Turf
Fatale Bere tracked down pacesetter Ms Bad Behavior in the stretch run in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Providencia Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Santa Anita and carried on to win by 1 1/2 lengths over that rival. The favorite, Paved, was found third, another 2 1/4 lengths in arrears. Fatale Bere, a French-bred daughter of Pedro the Great, ran 9 furlongs on firm going in 1:47.48 with Joel Rosario riding.
Beau Recall rallied from last of nine to take Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Royal Heroine Stakes for fillies and mares at Santa Anita by 3/4 length over Thundering Sky. Madame Stripes was another 3/4 length back in third and the favorite, Enola Gray, checked in fourth. Beau Recall, a 4-year-old Irish-bred filly by Sir Prancealot, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.52 under Joel Rosario. Winning trainer Simon Callaghan: "I was worried when they went pretty slow in front. We were hoping for some hot fractions, but she's just got such a turn of foot and a real big heart."
Rushing Fall, the odds-on favorite, settled mid-pack in Sunday's $200,000 Grade II Appalachian Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Keeneland, made up all the difference in the stretch and won by a comfortable 1 length from Thewayiam. Goodthingstaketime was third. Rushing Fall, a More Than Ready filly, got 1 mile over yielding turf in 1:38.66 with Javier Castellano up. "Just going to enjoy this, and plan from here," said winning trainer Chad Brown. "We just wanted to get her season started and see where we're at. I'm very pleased with the result."
Bound for Nowhere once again is bound for somewhere: England. The colt stalked a long shot pacesetter in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Shakertown at Keeneland, surged to the front in the stretch and went on to win by 4 lengths. Bucchero was second, 2 1/4 lengths ahead of the favorite, Disco Partner, who had some traffic issues while rallying from well off the pace. Bound for Nowhere, a 4-year-old colt by The Factor, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on soft turf in 1:03.77 for jockey Julio Garia.
"There's nothing like winning at Keeneland," said winning trainer Wesley Ward. "It's my favorite track in the world. If you're going to win here, you better have a good horse. Hopefully today, this guy showed he is, and we'll go back to England to represent Keeneland and the United States if he comes out of this good and sound, and hopefully get lucky."
Bound for Nowhere finished fourth in the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot last June, then 10th in the Prix Maurice de Gheest at Deauville in August. He won an allowance race at Turfway Park in preparation for the Shakertown.
Discreet Lover rallied from last of seven to win Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Excelsior Stakes by 2 1/2 lengths over Zanotti. Harlan Punch was another neck behind in third and the favorite, Control Group, retreated through most of the stretch to report fifth. Discreet Lover, a 5-year-old by Repent, finished 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.45 with Manny Franco up. Uriah St. Lewis, winning owner and trainer of Discreet Lover, commented: "He eats good, he don't care who he runs against. He's always trying. He comes up here a lot of times and finishes fourth and third and today he finally did it."
On the international scene:
Happy Clapper earned a spot in this fall's Breeders' Cup Mile with a victory in Saturday's Group 1 The Star Doncaster Mile at Royal Randwick. But his more immediate challenge is a rematch next weekend with Winx. The 7-year-old Teofilo gelding seized the lead with a rail move inside the final 300 meters to win the 153rd running of the Doncaster Mile by 2 lengths over Comin Through. It was his 11th win in a career that has included a long string of finishes behind super mare Winx -- most recently in the Group 1 George Ryder Stakes March 24. In that, Winx was all out to rally by Happy Clapper in deep stretch to preserve her winning streak. Trainer Patrick Webster did not indicate whether Happy Clapper would be a candidate for the Breeders' Cup Mile at Churchill Downs. But he said he is likely to run the gelding pack against Winx in the Group 1 Longines Queen Elizabeth Stakes April 14.
With a late surge from the back of the field, Almond Eye won Sunday's Grade I Oka Sho, or Japanese 1000 Guineas, by 1 3/4 lengths at Hanshin Racecourse. Lily Noble was third. Christophe Lemaire guided the winner and commented, "I had full confidence in her but the distance was another thing. I was concerned about the pace but what really mattered was the last 200 meters."
Beauty Only returned to a starring role Sunday at Sha Tin Racecourse, rallying from back of a brisk pace to win the Group 2 Chairman's Trophy, a likely test for the Group 1 Champions Mile on April 29. It was Beauty Only's first win since the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Mile in December 2016. "He was the horse of old there!" jockey Neil Callan said after urging Beauty Only home in 1:32.84 -- the second-fastest mile ever run at Sha Tin. "I've always thought this horse was a superstar," said trainer Tony Cruz said, adding thoughts of retirement now are on hold. Western Express was second, Pingwu Spark was third and Pakistan Star, despite trying to stop mid-race yet again -- a move which has become a frustrating trademark -- was up for fourth.
In the day's co-feature, the Group 2 Sprint Cup at 1,200 meters, Beat The Clock beat all the others, rallying from last to first under Joao Moreira. He nipped stablemate Mr Stunning by a neck. The result bettered three runner-up showings for the 4-year-old and offered promise for the Group 1 Chairman's Sprint Prize at the course and distance on April 29. Beat The Clock's final 400-meter split of 21.03 seconds was the fastest sectional recorded in any Sha Tin 1,200-meters race in the last decade.